The UK P&I Club highlights sudden loss of power incidents, a problem that increasingly occurs during & after the switching to lower sulphur fuels.
The Club reveals that main engine failures or electrical blackouts now amount to 7% of its third party claims property damage in US$ terms. Many were enormously expensive and in some cases amounted to millions of dollars. Ships effectively out of control as a result of these problems have caused extensive damage to berths, locks, bridges, navigational marks, loading arms, cranes and gantries as well as moored ships. Costly collision and grounding claims can similarly be caused by these failures.
Reports from pilots, operating in emission control areas where fuel grade changes have been implemented, indicate that these problems have become quite widespread, noting that ships regularly seem to be experiencing power losses, invariably at critical times in their manoeuvres and which are attributed to ‘fuel problems’.
The Club urges better communication between deck officers and engineers. Around three quarters of all chief engineers questioned reported blackouts caused by starting bow thrusters and deck machinery such as mooring winches or cranes with insufficient electrical power being available.
Engineers also need to warn the bridge of depleted air bottles. Excessive numbers of engine starts/stops during manoeuvring will deplete pressure in the main engine start tanks which can result in loss of control of the vessel at critical times, such as when docking, due to the engine failing to start. Since sudden loss of power is essentially a matter for the engineers to deal with, many of the UK Club’s recommendations are directed towards the engineroom team.
A shortage of fuel supply to the generating engines accounted for 64 (16%) of reported blackouts, with a high proportion of these attributed to blocked fuel filters. Engineers need to be more thorough when cleaning filters and be aware that if a vessel changes over from higher sulphur fuel (HFO), when marine gas oil is introduced into the system it may act like a solvent, releasing any asphaltenes which then collect in the fuel filters/strainers and clog them.
As the Club says, an extending network of ECAs around the world may well see the problems multiplying for those aboard ship. For example, it was reported that 60% of ships took up to 12 hours to change the main engine over from one type of fuel to another.
Of course the old favourite ‘human error’ has its part to play, featuring in 11% of main engine manoeuvring failures. Frequently it is as simple as “I pressed the wrong button” but it’s hard to get that information out of any ship’s officer!